Friday, February 13, 2009

Idaho first must do for itself

Economic illiteracy and common sense always have been failings among many U.S. politicians, from city hall to the U.S. Capitol. Budget decisions too often are made to mollify voters rather than serve bigger needs of a larger community.

However, conflicting examples of budget decisions that could have a widespread effect on the state's future popped up this week in Idaho's capital city.

First, state Tax Commission Chairman Royce Chigbrow made one of those knee-jerk bureaucratic decisions that's totally self-defeating: As part of a mandate to trim spending, his agency laid off and furloughed 58 auditors and collectors that together generated $7.5 million annually in tax revenues. The staff reductions "saved" the agency $1.1 million.

That's lousy math—losing a net $6.4 million in revenue to the state. Chigbrow should reverse his decision.

Second, Gov. Butch Otter has proposed a bold tax plan to repair and improve Idaho's dreadful roads and bridges.

By raising the 25-cent-per-gallon fuel tax two cents and increasing registration fees across the board on vehicles of all types, Otter's five-year program eventually would generate $174 million per year.

Before taxpayers gag in astonishment, they should pause and reflect on Otter's persuasive rationale.

Deserting his past no-new-tax philosophy, a wiser Gov. Otter commendably explained: "We can't build this state and make the decisions we need to make on infrastructure on unfulfilled promises."

Put in coarser terms, Idaho's future can't be built on decrepit, dangerous, neglected roads that are the backbone of commerce and daily life.

Poorly maintained and inadequate roads ultimately are more expensive to taxpayers than improvements. Crumbling surfaces reduce gas mileage. Unsafe roads cause accidents that lead to costly investigations, injury, loss of life and court proceedings.

Finally, if state legislators are too timid to follow Gov. Otter's lead and foresight, and instead knuckle under to shortsighted taxpayer objections, conditions of roads will only worsen—and when catch-up improvements finally get underway, the costs will be exponentially higher and more objectionable to taxpayers.

It's pay now or later.

And there's this advice from Pocatello Mayor Roger Chase, a former state Democratic lawmaker, who supports Otter's tax plan. "We raised the gas tax 10 cents (in 1996) and six months later, nobody remembered it."

In time, some of the federal stimulus funds may ease the cost of Idaho's road projects. Meanwhile, waiting and hoping isn't an option. Idaho must begin by doing for itself.

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